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They are in high demand, but how do ventilators actually work?

Hospitals around the country say they're running out, and companies are stepping up to make them; but ventilators are complex machines.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States, hospitals around the country have been sounding the alarm about ventilators. Fear of not having enough to treat COVID-19 patients has spurred companies to increase production, and switch over whole assembly lines, to make more. But why are ventilators so vital and how do they work?

Put simply, a ventilator can assist or fully take over the physical process of breathing that a person's body would otherwise do automatically. With some respiratory illnesses, including the novel coronavirus, fluid can build up in a person's lungs and decrease the amount of air they can take in. A ventilator can help increase that amount.

Ventilators work by taking a mixture of air and oxygen and delivering it into a person's lungs through a tube. When ventilators were first invented, they were relatively simple mechanical machines. But, like most things, they have become more complex over the years and are now sophisticated computer systems.

Fifty years ago, it was common for hospital staff to take apart ventilators to understand how they work and to perform simple maintenance. Today, ventilators are typically only worked on by specially-trained biomedical engineers. 

Putting someone on a ventilator can be as simple as putting a mask over someone's nose and mouth if they are still able to partially breathe on their own. More severe cases require a process called intubation. During that procedure, a patient is sedated and given a muscle relaxer; then a tube is placed down into their windpipe. That tube is then hooked up to the ventilator.

Under normal conditions, intubation would be a routine procedure for any hospital. But during this pandemic, medical staff are taking added precautions and safety measures to limit the possible spread and exposure to COVID-19. 

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